Can Cell Phones Really Save the Planet?

Bracken Hendricks thinks it’s not the gadget that will make the difference—but what we do with it.

Last year, nearly one in four of the world’s six billion people lived in extreme poverty. A quarter of all human beings on the planet had no electricity. Nearly a third did not have reliable access to safe drinking water, and even larger numbers subsisted on wood and charcoal instead of modern fuels. Just under 800 million adults were not able to read or write last year. And, close to nine million children died before their fifth birthday.

Yet, in the face of these terrible unmet needs, the earth’s ability to supply more resources is already strained to capacity. Last year, global forests lost an area the size of Greece. Creeping deserts drained the fertility of the soil in thousands more acres, costing farmers $42 billion in lost income from dwindling harvests. Pollution from our homes, cars, industry, and mismanaged lands, burdened the atmosphere with yet another 30 billion tons of greenhouse gases, rendering the natural environment ever more fragile, less resilient, and stressed by our demands.

The urgency of development is on a collision course with the very real constraints of a limited planet. The un-sustainability of this current path goes to the very core of our greatest global challenges in poverty, health care, education, and the environment. We can never provide enough stuff in the same old ways. The only solution is to innovate.

Reversing these devastating trends requires new access to services, new ways of building prosperity, and new communication tools available to all. Technology is accelerating and democratizing the work of saving the planet.

The value of new technology is not in the gizmos themselves. It lies in their ability to foster new communication, business models, and organizing strategies that touch human lives and foster creativity.

The value of new technology is not in the gizmos themselves. It lies in their ability to foster new communication, new business models, and new organizing strategies that touch human lives and empower creativity.

Information technology can transform development. Increasing mobile-phone penetration is linked to rising GDP. Over half the businesses in South Africa and Egypt attribute increased profits to mobile phones. Last year more than ten percent of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product passed through the cell phone based M-Pesa financial service tool. That number will double in 2010. And, the gender gap that results in 300 million fewer female subscribers to mobile services, is estimated as a $13 billion market. But the real mobile revolution is in the innovative services that are delivered on this platform.

The African nonprofit Tostan, a Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) member, has launched initiatives to teach literacy and numeracy with mobile phones to non-literate, poor and rural populations. Last year, one project reached 12,000 people in 200 rural communities in Senegal. And studies show major gains, as the number of participants able to write a text message jumped from 8 to 62 percent.

Another platform, Ushahidi, meaning “testimony” in Swahili, was built for tracking electoral violence in Kenya, to tap the knowledge held by crowds, and force transparency. But social entrepreneurs around the world now put this mapping tool to work on other things like disaster relief in Haiti. Other SMS-based tools are fighting counterfeit drugs in Ghana, monitoring elections in India, and sharing market prices to improve the lives of Southeast Asian fisherman.

The applications of cell-phone based tools are as diverse as the human imagination and as plentiful as human needs.

The applications of these tools are as diverse as the human imagination and as plentiful as human needs., another CGI member, is using online tools to provide access to micro lending for student loans in un-served markets around the world. A new commitment from Delta Partners will assist separated refugee families reunite. While blogs and streaming video are empowering dissident voices and countering human rights abuse. The United States Secretary of State has even called Internet freedom a human right.

Technology innovation is transforming physical infrastructure as well. The next generation of development will not involve ever-bigger pipes, roads, and wires to move ever-larger flows of resources. Instead progress increasingly means being smart, using resources sparingly but to greater effect. CGI members are leading the way here too, with commitments that reinvent building materials, rewire communities and replace oil with fuels made from algae or electricity from the sun.

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